28 March 2010

Vasily Vasilievich Smyslov, 1921-2010

In the art of chess there are no unalterable laws governing the struggle, which are appropriate to every position, otherwise chess would lose its attractiveness and eternal character.
Vasily Smyslov
Grandmaster Vasily Vasilievich Smyslov died Saturday. He was World Chess Champion 1957-1958. For several years after the end of World War II he was considered the second strongest player in the world behind Mikhail Botvinnik. Garry Kasparov states, he "was the strongest player in the world in the mid-1950s" (Kasparov, My Great Predecessors, vol. II, 263); in his three championship matches against Botvinnik, he scored +1. He placed second behind Botvinnik in the 1948 World Chess Championship tournament to choose a successor to Alexander Alekhine.

Smyslov was among the first group of players awarded the Grandmaster title by FIDE in 1950. He won the 1953 Candidates Tournament in Zurich, two points ahead of David Bronstein, Paul Keres, and Sammy Reshevsky. The next year he scored 12-12 (7 wins each) against Botvinnik in the World Championship match, so Botvinnik retained the title. In 1957 he defeated Botvinnik 12.5-9.5 (Smyslov won 6, lost 3) becoming World Champion. Botvinnik regained the title the following year with a score of 12.5-10.5 (Botvinnik won 7, lost 5).

Although his reign as world champion was brief, he continued to qualify for the Candidates' matches into his sixth decade. In 1983 at the age of 62 he lost the Candidates Final to Garry Kasparov, who went on to wrest the World Championship from Anatoly Karpov through two epic matches.

Smyslov became a professional chess player after he failed in his audition as an opera singer at the renowned Bolschoi Theatre. He often sang at international chess tournaments, accompanied by Mark Taimanov on piano, earning accolades for his voice from his fellow competitors. Fifty years after his audition at the Bolschoi Theatre, he performed there in celebration of Anatoly Karpov's birthday.

Search for Truth

Smyslov's chess style was worthy of emulation. Kasparov quotes Smyslov's own expression of his philosophy:
I am a staunch supporter of classical clarity of thought. The content of a game should be a search for truth, and victory a demonstration of its rightness. No imagination, however rich, no technique, however masterly, no penetration into the psychology of the opponent, however deep, can make a chess game a work of art, if these qualities do not lead to the main goal -- the search for truth.
Smyslov, as quoted in My Great Predecessors, 283
In the introduction to the English edition of Smyslov, My Best Games of Chess, 1935-1957, Peter Romanovsky emphasizes his skepticism towards dogma. Romanovsky draws attention to Smyslov's comments on the power of the bishop pair. The following position was reached in the game Euwe-Smyslov from the World Championship tournament.

Black to move

Smyslov played 19...Bxb2. He wrote in My Best Games of Chess (1958):
Outwardly simple, but in actual fact a major decision. Euwe undoubtedly considered this reply, but hoped with the help of his two Bishops to win back the pawn on b3 and obtain the better ending. So great is the conviction nowadays in the advantage of the two Bishops! Here it is interesting to recall that M.I. Tchigorin readily carried on the struggle with two Knights and obtained repeated successes. In the art of chess there are no unalterable laws governing the struggle, which are appropriate to every position, otherwise chess would lose its attractiveness and eternal character.
Smyslov, My Best Games of Chess, 78
Romanovsky observes Smyslov's penchant for unusual moves, but notes:
In the course of his daring denial of the routine and commonplace Smyslov does not in the least depart from classical principles and testaments; quite the reverse, he creates a deepening understanding of these principles, widens their effect and opens new avenues for their development.
Romanovsky, "Vassily Vassilievitch Smyslov," Introduction to My Best Games of Chess, xviii
In his fidelity to classical principles combined with resistance to dogma, Smyslov conscientiously followed the ideas of Tchigorin under whom his father, Vassily Osipovitch Smyslov, had studied. The Russian Chess School of Tchigorin trained the first Soviet masters, and they produced the innovations in training and theory that would dominate chess in the latter half of the twentieth century. Indeed, the upcoming World Championship Match between the challenger Veselin Topalov and the current champion Viswanathan Anand is the first WCC match since World War II that does not feature at least one protagonist that gained his early training in the Soviet School. As the Soviet School was gaining dominance, Smyslov was one of its leading proponents.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this post. I will have a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of Smyslov when I see his games. R.I.P. Vassily.